August 31, 2009

C.U. Looks Within as Deficit Looms

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With Cornell’s current budget deficit still totaling a grave $135 million, the University has been forced to seriously reconsider its future. Reimagining Cornell — an effort the University is touting as “one of the most comprehensive self-examinations in its 144-year history” — will, once complete, provide a strategic plan that top administrators hope will set the university on stable financial footing.
The project has two phases: identifying areas across colleges where expenses can be trimmed and rebuilding Cornell accordingly into a “leaner and stronger institution,” according to the University. The work will be divided between task forces of those affiliated with the University and with Bain & Co., a global consulting firm. The task forces will look at streamlining the University from its core focuses on teaching, outreach and research, while the consultants will focus on cutting costs from a non-academic standpoint.
“The project itself is definitely motivated by the economy,” said Kent Hubbell ’67, dean of students. “The University definitely had some ambitious plans during the past decade and anticipated a stronger economy. We are not the only institution caught by surprise.”
Many universities across the country are feeling the same financial pinch as Cornell, propagated by lavish spending — much of which administrators are, in retrospect, terming shortsighted and unaffordable. Before the recession hit, Cornell committed itself to many new initiatives that helped the University grow, but which did not take into account a potential economic meltdown.
Wealthy private universities suffered a decline in their endowments last fall, causing many to go over the edge of what they could spend and save successfully. Cornell’s own endowment plummeted 27 percent during the second half of 2008.
But Provost Kent Fuchs sees the forthcoming streamlining process as an opportunity for institutional improvement. “It’s very scary, but there is a lot of freedom to think creatively,” Fuchs told the University.
[img_assist|nid=37699|title=A new Cornell|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=336|height=240]The University has formed 20 task forces, falling under eight main groups, which will act as think tanks for strategic planning. According to a document made public on the Reimagining Cornell website, 14 task forces, including one for each of the seven colleges, are grouped under the umbrella of ‘academic task forces.’ Other ‘cross-college task forces’ encompass areas from budget, student enrollment, student and academic services to three of the main disciplines taught at Cornell: Life Sciences, Management Sciences and Social Sciences.
The remaining budget deficit has been pre-divided between the task forces for each college, according to Hubbell. Hubbell also said that the Student and Academic Services task force has a projected goal of trimming $20 million.
This slimming and trimming could spell widespread cuts across the University. Current suggestions on the table — which are still in the draft phase — include the downsizing, elimination of, and merging of many departments. For example, in a letter sent to the unit and department heads in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the beginning of the summer, Dean Susan Henry spelled out the urgent financial pressures on her college. She said that in the near future, CALS will need to eliminate 30 to 40 faculty positions, as well as cut up to 12 departments.
Fuchs noted that CALS, the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Engineering, as the three largest colleges in the University, have been the hardest hit by the economic downturn.
“$215 million will be very, very damaging,” said Walter Cohen, senior associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, speaking of the total amount the University will cut between last fiscal year and the completion of Reimagining Cornell.
“While I don’t understand how long-term these things are, the mere recovery of the stock market isn’t going to pull us out of this,” Cohen said.
The task forces’ final reports are due in October and the University will release a report on the first phase of the plan a month later. The phase two report will be released in Spring 2010.
According to Fuchs, Bain & Co. is attempting to streamline spending “from the outside in,” starting with non-academic programs including facilities and utilities, information technology and human resources.
Prof. Daphne Jameson, communication, is a member of the task force for the School of Hotel Administration. “We recommended approaches that would have the least impact on the quality of teaching and the positive experience our students have,” Jameson said. “Some of these recommendations have already been implemented and others are in the works.”
According to Hubbell, students can expect an impact on student life.
“Once the project is in place, there could be some fundamental changes that may be noticeable in everyday student life,” Hubbell said. “Students are important, but at the same time Cornell is also an ambitious research institution, and academics are foremost important.”
“If this hurts the University, the main victims are going to be the students who aren’t here yet, [more than the current ones],” Cohen said.
But students are not the only ones suffering from the University’s budget cuts. According to Cohen, staff has been laid off, faculty raises have been put on hold, and hiring has slowed.
Cornell is “committed to full financial aid,” according to Cohen, and a “poorer student body” is putting pressure on the University’s financial aid programs. Annual giving by alumni has decreased, and Cornell’s contract colleges have been impacted by a decrease in available New York State funding.
Construction of new facilities and renovations to old ones are major concerns for University spending. The building of Milstein Hall and the new Physical Sciences Building and renovations to the Johnson Art Museum are currently underway, but the University’s current projects are “a far cry from what we would be doing,” Cohen said.
Fuchs expressed his commitment to preserving breath and depth in areas of study across the University.
“I don’t want to damage that unique broadness, because we are much more broad than the other Ivies and universities and it gives us unique strength,” Fuchs said.
Fuchs stated his goals for Reimagining Cornell as becoming more focused and “enhancing rankings and reputation” of the University.
The initiative is a joint endeavor by the Offices of the President and the Provost, but the University is promising an ear to concerned members of the Cornell community. Skorton and Fuchs will be present in an Open Forum this Friday at noon in G10 Bio-Tech to provide an update on the project and to engage in a question-and-answer session.
“In the end the president and provost have to make the decision, but we will open up for intense yet friendly debate,” Fuchs said.
In face of the enormous project, Fuchs remains optimistic about Cornell’s future.
“I very much expect that [the university] will be very much be better over time,” Fuchs said. “It has to be.”